Wednesday, 25 April 2012

French Children Don't Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman

"Je t'ai dit NON, Quentin!"
"Tais-toi, maman."
Parental advice should always come with a warning along the lines of the Phillip Larkin poem with the swearing, because one parental expert's advice is another's anathema. In my case, all parental advice is anathema to me, as I'm a trial-and-error kind of guy and frankly your children are all horrible little brats so why should I listen to you?

Oddly enough, though, I didn't hate this book. That's probably because it's written by an American who finds out that Americans don't know everything there ever was to know about raising children who over-achieve and are models of societal perfection. Entertainment enough, one might think, but she is also married to a Brit, one who likes Dutch football. Not in and of itself interesting, but I don't think he gets enough credit throughout - Simon, we salute you!

Back to the book, and we laugh as our heroine Pamela falls foul of the many pitfalls awaiting ex-pat Anglophones in France, often and repeatedly, but smile benevolently as she does eventually learn that in France, there is no 'other way', probably not peculiar to France but something very evident if you've ever lived there or with a Francophone for any length of time. I'm married to one. 

And I hasten to add she's the best Francophone ever and is lovely and not at all inflexible or haughty. *smiles obsequiously*

Ok, she's gone, but seriously, parental advice aside, this book is acute cultural observation with plenty of expert opinion, and highlights many of the clashes between the Anglos and the Francos with reference to the underlying causes. There's lots to discuss therein, but it might spoil your enjoyment of the book. Give it a blast and you may find yourself with a new-found understanding of the French, and wish to give her advice a try. We've found we're already practising many of the things described, as if by accident. More likely by design. You've met my wife, haven't you?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Bones of the Moon by Jonathan Carroll

Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I just might compare these two authors at some point in this review, as what they write shares a feeling for the magic inherent in daily life. One finds Carroll* dwelling in some rather splendid fictional landscapes at times, and it’s only the merest pin-prick away via the thin veneer of supposed reality. When I need a dose of magic realism that doesn't involve sleeping with whores, being in a Latin American country or incurring the wrath of an imam, Carroll and Gaiman are the two to which I would most regularly turn.

The good kind of
magical realism?
In this, an early work, the narrative is centred on a woman with the unlikely name of Cullen, who as a discombobulated young person has an abortion which she both regrets and is relieved to have had. She inhabits two different realms, one “real” and one a dream-scape; one where she finds unconditional love and peace with the man she should have been with originally; and one where she is guiding a small child named Pepsi through a land towards some as yet unseen goal, accompanied by benevolent (so she thinks) monster animals with hats. The clued up amongst you will probably have spotted the pretty obvious device here, and frankly, it wasn’t really a shock to me either. Pepsi appears to be (and is later confirmed as) her aborted son.

At this point, I might want to say that as far as stories about the lives aborted foetuses may have had go, this fares particularly poorly when put up against something of the scope of Where The Dead Live by Will Self, a blisteringly brilliant novel on many levels. In fact, I might go further and say that I feel the author is often living in his own world, occasionally spilling bits onto paper and allowing the reader vaguely connected but incomplete access thereto. Look hard enough at his work and you will spot cameos from many characters in other books – in this case the director Weber Gregston, star of what some might call a “morbid yet subtle psychological horror story”, A Child Across The Sky. Recurring characters and motifs, and preposterous fantasy realms make for some difficulty in suspending disbelief sufficiently for me, a properly jaded reader, to enjoy his novels properly.

And yet (he says again) enjoy them I do, even if not in their entirety. Carroll has a disturbing flair with his dream-like situations, and produces works which are moreish even as they are fleetingly remembered. Whilst not whole and hearty fare like that of Gaiman, it is delicate and dangerous, to a degree, and definitely a worthwhile addition to a fantasy fan’s library. Horror, however, these books are not. For a fuller exploration of just what horror is (pre-Saw splatter fests), please refer to Brian Lumley.

*Forgive the sporting reference at this point, but as a Liverpool (Football Club) fan I find myself uneasy with such regular use of the name “Carroll” and will therefore try to limit it from here on in. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care by Lee Server

Guilt appears to play a major role in the selection of my next read. In lots of recent decisions it has been pretty evident, and it is intriguing that one should feel guilty about buying (or possessing) a copy of a book without having read it. In my case, I suspect, it’s because I’m a big old mess of guilt, stemming from a child-like disbelief that I appear to have gotten away with “it” for nearly 34 years. What “it” may be is open for debate.

"Do you want to hear the
story of old Love and Hate?"
Nevertheless, I guilt-tripped myself into finally reading this stupendously thick biography of icon Robert Mitchum by the ever studious Lee Server and am endlessly glad I did. Despite the impact it had on my relationship (it appears that the subsequent and repeated renting of black and white Mitchum vehicles on my wife’s dime is an act with internecine repercussions) I literally rushed home from work at lunch times to cram in another paragraph between mouthfuls of cous-cous salad, dog-releasing-into-the-garden-to-prevent-damage-to-property and washing up. Not that it’s all that surprising a biography* when one boils it all down, but it does represent a snap-shot of a life well-lived, and of a man so adept at going with the flow that it was almost as though the flow was going with him. And, in essence, it’s just a “here’s the next entertaining thing he did, and here’s another” type roll call of classic cool comportment, with no major departures from any other Hollywood eye-opener. However, the subject is the star, something to which all good biographies (and probably also reviews) should aspire, and in this case, the star is such a paragon of anti-establishmentarianism (“paragon” being an amusingly apposite word for it despite the satirical undertones) that he could not possibly NOT appeal to me, romantic old fusspot that I am.

Of course, a badly written biography therefore would do nothing but slap me in the face with a wet haddock. Instead, I was basking in the warm embrace of prose that never tried to be something it was not, grammar and syntax that echoed that of Mitchum himself, and masses of superb contextualising evidence that did nothing but support a balanced and comprehensive report on the life of a man who despite his clear flaws and unapologetic (and in fact, undefended) opinions was someone I would probably liked to have shared some time with. But only a little: I’m quite the lightweight these days and that goes equally for drinking and fighting. In spite of my early reservations (about size, quality, encroaching apathy) at page 660 when I realised the rest was taken up with copious references and notes, I was suitably upset!** If I had to be one of those guys who make a fantastic and frankly disturbing connection with a movie star, then I would probably be one who was ridiculous in his adoration of this one. Server is a great biographer (of Hollywood stars) and I would urge any cinephile to read it, just as I would urge any fan of well-tempered biography to do the same.

And lastly, quoting verbatim as I don’t have my copy with me, I would love to repeat to you one of my favourite Mitchum anecdotes:
When on set with Loretta Young, a devout and some might say prickly Catholic, he was amused when an assistant came over to explain her curse box system for those who swore on set – it was fifty cents for ‘hell’, a dollar for ‘damn’ – so, imperturbable as ever, and whilst making eye-contact with her across the room, he asked in as loud a voice as possible, “Just how much does Miss Young charge for a ‘fuck’?”

*I should clarify that it IS a surprising biography in that it comes to 660 pages without any direct input from the man himself.
** It doesn’t help that, as with all linear narrative posthumous biographies, you know they die at the end...

The Rogue by Joe McGinniss

"I can see Russia from my
house. Did I say Russia?
I meant rush hour..."
I don’t remember why it was I’d asked for a copy for Christmas, but a copy I received and very grateful I was. It took me a while to work up to it, but post-Jonathan Carroll I felt the need to connect to something more contemporaneous so it got the nod. In the interim I had heard diddly squat about it, critical, positive or anecdotal. In itself, that may be nothing unusual as I wasn’t looking for anything, but in attempting to find a picture of my edition to use on the blog, I discovered that Crown had cancelled a UK paperback edition: strange or not? I considered the possible reasons (chiefly among them the likelihood that an update was due following announcements or developments, news of which I had not heard either) but was concerned that one might be that it was one-sided, trash-talking, anti-Palin hyperbole from a man of whom I knew only from his charming book on life at a minor Italian football club.*

Of course, fears were allayed once I’d actually started to read it.

The over reliance on blogs as sources aside** McGinniss appears to work tirelessly towards a balanced understanding of the background, upbringing and influences of Sarah Palin. That this task is tantamount to the punishment of Sisyphus is not his fault. McGinniss reports that he faced threats, calls from lunatics to kill him and his children and grandchildren, and down-right un-Alaskan rudeness in the wake of his rather dubiously motivated renting of the house next door to the Palin homestead on Lake Lucille, and yet still manages to remain equable and not feel the need to take advantage of the many proffered firearms for the famed Alaskan defence of self and property. He does so whilst preparing a frankly luminous book, laced with wit and insight in equal measure, and surprisingly, given the many other far easier targets in his sights***, levelling the most grievous charges not at Sarah Palin herself, damaged, deranged, deluded creature that she so clearly appears to be (from the outside and indeed the Outside), but at a media that obsequiously panders to her every outburst, and steadfastly refuses to allow her poisonous fruits to wither on her desiccated vine – “Lamestream media” indeed. Still, McGinniss points out, the two entities are co-dependent because Palin sells papers (and air time).

For a chap rarely interested in the minutiae of American politics, this book has caught my attention. It did randomly before Christmas and has done so again. I like McGinniss, a state of affairs with which I am comfortable. I don’t like Sarah Palin (and Todd, Bristol, dad Chuck Heath et cetera), ditto. That she could have even been considered suitable for a public service post seems ludicrous, let alone have been a candidate for a position that could have ended up with her as POTUS (if McCain keeled over or was shot by one of his own NRA loonies). It’s just as well serendipity has run out on her at last. God must have a keenly developed sense of humour if he did indeed tell her to run for President. What a joker!

As for McGinniss – I may just take a peek at some of his neglected back list.

*This fact still didn’t stop me from being surprised by the frequent references to excitement over the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
** McGinniss qualifies this by explaining the near complete lack of alternative and / or balanced sources available. Palin does seem to polarise opinion in very much the same way as she appears to see things as either clearly good (i.e. on her side) or evil (i.e. not on her side). Besides, the Palins’ refusal to sanction – and by sanction please understand me to mean not threaten litigiously, libellously, financially or physically the friends, relatives, neighbours, peers, co-inhabitants and strangers of Alaska at large (and families) to and of the Palin family – any interaction with the stalker next door.
*** Not the infamous gun-sights that appeared on Palin’s PAC site over the state of Congresswoman Gifford just before her unfortunate and near fatal assault...